Lincoln Swears to Uphold the Emancipation Proclamation

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | December 20, 2013

December 20, 2013
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Reading the Emancipation Proclamation / H.W. Herrick, del., J.W. Watts, sc. Steel engraving. Circa 1864. Library of Congress.

When, on New Year’s Day, 1863, President Lincoln signed his Proclamation of Emancipation decreeing that the four million slaves held in Rebel states not yet occupied by the Union “are, and henceforward shall be free”, he was never more certain in his life that he had done the right thing. If slavery was not wrong, he said, nothing was wrong. But not everyone believed that his abolitionism was sincere – his having trouble, as presidents are wont, with his base… Here, in this extraordinary autograph statement, written almost a year what Lincoln regarded as the central act of his administration, speaks to his unshakable resolve.

“Still, to use a coarse, but an expressive figure, broken eggs can not be mended. I have issued the emancipation proclamation, and I can not retract it.” – Abraham Lincoln, January 8, 1863, Letter to John A. McClernand

“I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves, are, and henceforth shall be free…” No other words of Lincoln so changed the lives of Americans as this blunt declaration from his Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863 – and defended for the rest of his presidency. Even after Lincoln wrote – in the eight months following the Proclamation’s issue – four public letters explaining why he was in favor of emancipation, the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party still sought assurance that Lincoln was absolutely committed to the abolition of slavery. In his State of the Union Message of December 20, 1863, Lincoln again stated, unequivocally, his commitment to the Emancipation – prompting the indefatigable organizer of New England abolitionism, Henry C. Wright of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, to write him a letter:

“God bless thee, Abraham Lincoln! With all my heart, & bless thee, in the name of God and Humanity! But – mark! I want nothing of you – you can do nothing for me – except – this one favor… that you will write for me, & subscribe your name to it – with your own hand – this sentence in your late message – i.e., “I shall not attempt to retract or modify… [etc.]” I have given 30 years of my life to the abolition of slavery – by lecturing, by public & private discussion, & by scattering, broad cast, tracts and pamphlets bearing on that subject. I regard the American Republic as the God-appointed Messiah of Liberty to the great family of Nations…”

Lincoln, in return, penned those seven memorable lines on the very day of his address:

“I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation; nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.”

This single sentence concretized then, and memorializes now, Lincoln’s greatest moment.

Here, too, is a card on which Lincoln hand-wrote Wright’s address, care of Wendell Phillips at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and in which Lincoln, characteristically, misspelled “Phillips” with only one “l”.  That error was corrected on the envelope sent to Wright – addressed in the hand of and franked by Lincoln’s secretary John Hay – and which bore an uncommon but grand printed heading: “From the President of the United States.” Perhaps Lincoln, rather than just write out the address himself on an envelope, wanted to emphasize the importance of what was being pledged and, as to the politics of the thing, to whom, by whom – and hence the unusual envelope to make the point that this message, absolutely, came from On High.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.  1809-1865.  The 16th President of the United States.

Autograph Quotation Signed, 1 page, octavo, Executive Mansion, Washington, December 20, 1863. Written in reply to Henry C. Wright, lecturing agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Of the greatest rarity.   With:  2 envelopes:  1) an Autograph Envelope, as President, being the four-line address of Henry C. Wright, 1 page, sextodecimo, no place [Washington], December 20, 1863.  2) an envelope, bearing the unusual printed heading, “From the President of the United States”, addressed and franked by Lincoln’s secretary John Hay, copying Lincoln’s note; postmarked “Washington December 20, 1863.”

This Shapell Manuscript Foundation original autograph was on display at the Smithsonian’s “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963” exhibition in Washington, D.C., from December 14, 2012 through September 15, 2013.